Church Needs to Engage in Public Debate about Its Future

By Harris, David | Anglican Journal, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Church Needs to Engage in Public Debate about Its Future


Harris, David, Anglican Journal


HOW ONE RESPONDS to criticism in adverse times is frequently regarded as a test of character in individuals. It is no less so for corporations or public institutions.

The church is facing some of the toughest adversity in a long time as abuse lawsuits arising from residential schools make their way through the courts. The suits threaten to cripple the institution. Several dioceses and the national church are vulnerable to bankruptcy if many of the suits are successful.

The church needs society to believe it is an institution worth preserving. How is that to happen, especially in a society that has abandoned church affiliation in such numbers in the past quarter century?

The best response so far has come from the pages of the Globe and Mail. Columnist Margaret Wente presented a thoughtful, tightly argued and convincing argument that the potential demise of the church, were it to lose many more cases like the first one, would serve no one and would not see justice done.

But eye hath not seen nor ear heard a similar response from the church. One reader called concerned that the silence implied lawyers had taken over leadership of the church.

If lawyers are leading the church, it can only be because the church is letting them. Lawyers give advice -- expert advice, but advice nonetheless. The advice sought is not the solution to a problem but the legal implications of a proposed solution. Leaders can take advice or leave it; but they can't abandon leadership.

Silence is not always bad. Bishop Jim Cruickshank of the Diocese of Cariboo is accepting legal advice not to speak about his diocese's predicament. The diocese is on the verge of bankruptcy. The bishop may be called to testify in other lawsuits and his comments may be (mis)used by aggressive lawyers. This is probably wise, especially as Bishop Cruickshank did the right thing early on by admitting the church made mistakes, publicly apologizing for harm caused. That is leadership.

Bishop Cruickshank is now taking lumps for other people's terrible mistakes. That's leadership too. Besides, the regional archbishop, David Crawley, has been available and articulate in the media on behalf of Cariboo.

But that is only one small part of the wider problem facing the church. Archdeacon Jim Boyles, the national church's general secretary, has said he hopes the federal government will be persuaded that the church is an institution worth preserving and will work with all the churches affected by the residential schools legacy to reach an equitable solution.

Maybe. But what affects the federal government, among other things, is public perception and public pressure.

With almost no clear public articulation by the church of its position, how will the public's mind be formed on this issue?

If the media are any indication, the public will not necessarily be supportive. …

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